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Long draft day wait for Central Michigan UFA OL Kevin Henry rewarded

Morris, IL — Heading into Day Three of the 2015 NFL Draft, Central Michigan offensive lineman Kevin Henry knew it’d be a long shot that he’d actually hear his name called. He knew through his agent that there was interest, and as some of the teams he’d been in contact with went on the clock, he edged forward in his seat, glancing casually at his phone as if this might be the call. However, he’d known for months that he’d likely land as an undrafted free agent.

Of course, the nature of the NFL Draft doesn’t allow for certainty, so as rounds four, five, six and seven came and went, Henry still held onto the boyhood dream of being drafted–hearing his name called at the podium. At a family friend’s house in Morris, Illinois, friends and family came and went throughout the day.

Several of his old high school coaches stopped by, beaming with pride not only at what one of their star pupils was about to accomplish but also at how the community had come together to embrace the culmination of a lot of hard work. Like so many Midwestern communities, Morris loves its football. Sometimes they love it to a fault–to the extent that it stretches boundaries or sometimes blinds us–but more often they love it to the fullest extent of what it can be when it’s at its best.

It brings them together, and on Saturday, May 2, football and Kevin Henry brought an awful lot of folks from Morris, Illinois, together.

The Transformation

A 255-pound, three-star prospect out of high school listed as a defensive end by Rivals.com, Henry chose Central Michigan over offers from Indiana, Akron and NIU. After a redshirt year in Mount Pleasant where he transformed his body, Henry emerged as an offensive linemen for the Chippewas, starting four games at right tackle to close out the 2011 season.

Kevin Henry added weight to start on the offensive line at Central Michigan, and after a long draft day wait he was extended a rookie camp invitation from the Atlanta Falcons.

Kevin Henry added weight to start on the offensive line at Central Michigan, and after a long draft day wait he was extended a rookie camp invitation from the Atlanta Falcons.

The following year, Henry would play in 12 games as a sophomore, starting a game at left tackle against UMass. In his junior year, he finally broke into the starting lineup on a permanent basis, starting 25 straight games to end his career and helping lead the Chippewas to the Bahamas Bowl as a senior in 2014.

In one of the most exciting games of the bowl season, Central Michigan made a 34-point comeback against Western Kentucky, scoring on a miraculous play to end regulation only to fall short by one point after a failed two-point conversion that would have won them the game. It’d be hard to imagine a more disheartening way for a college career to end, but Henry didn’t have much time to sulk. The bowl was played during the day on Dec. 24 and by Jan. 2, he was in a car headed for New Jersey to train with Brian Martin, a renowned specialist who has worked with Baltimore Ravens QB Joe Flacco and Arizona Cardinals DB Patrick Peterson.

With a Pro Day at Central Michigan looming on Mar. 20, Henry split his time about 60-40 between combine-specific training and football drills at the Parabolic Performance Training Center, knowing that an impressive performance back in Mount Pleasant could put him firmly on some team’s radar.

“My numbers are going to be a lot better than what some websites have me listed,” he told me prior to his Pro Day in March in an interview for the Morris Daily Herald.

And while he didn’t deliver on the sub-4.9 second time in the 40-yard dash he’d hoped, he didn’t miss by much, and the 4.91-second time he did run was the fastest documented 40 time of any offensive lineman of the Class of 2015. And that was enough to put him on scouts’ radar, if he wasn’t already.

A sports family, through and through

Kevin Henry was three years younger than me at Morris Community High School, and from a physical standpoint he looked ready to play varsity football from the second he walked onto campus as a freshman. He played up with the sophomores before getting called up to the varsity as an extra body during the IHSA playoffs. I also played varsity baseball and football with his brother Mike, who was a year behind me, and then I covered his little brother Bubba extensively during his career as a baseball and football player at MCHS for the Morris Daily Herald.

It was always an athletic family, and their parents Kevin and Wendy Henry were staples of the booster programs for the better part of a decade while their kids were in school. It’s a sports family, through and through.

As Kevin went to college and became a starter, I got the opportunity to cover his career at Central Michigan while working for the MDH, so I was pleasantly surprised to see a Facebook message from Jim–using his wife’s profile because he didn’t have his own–inviting me to Kevin’s draft party.

“Best case, we will be celebrating Kevin on a new team as a late-round (pick) or free agent. Worst case nothing happens and it is a celebration of his college career,” the invitation read. I shot Jim a text and let him know that I’d be honored to be there.

A phone call and an office meeting

After heading in through the back of the house to say hello to some friends of mine in the backyard, I found Kevin upstairs in the living room perched on the edge of his seat watching ESPN’s NFL Draft coverage.

In Morris, when we gather, we always have a good time and Kevin’s draft party was no different, but Kevin was focused on the task at hand and he wanted to be ready for the call. He’d been texting his agent keeping an eye on who might be interested and what the buzz was and you could tell it was weighing on him a little, but he still seemed to be enjoying everything and was genuinely appreciative of everyone who’d come out to show their support.

The call would finally come shortly after the conclusion of the draft on Saturday.

As everyone gathered in the basement and the lake in the backyard, we got word to head upstairs into the living room and kitchen. Kevin and his family were in the office with the door closed and when they emerged they announced that the Atlanta Falcons had extended an invitation to Henry to come down to their rookie camp for a tryout.

As we stayed to celebrate–watching the fight between Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao–the reality began to sink in that the work was just beginning for Kevin. But, as he’d told me in March, Henry was adamant that all he’d ever needed was a chance.

The long road

Kevin Henry leaves for Atlanta on Thursday. It’s a 700-mile journey, but it pales in comparison to the uphill battle Henry will have to make a 53-man roster.

He’ll tryout with the Falcons during rookie mini-camp, hoping to earn a full training camp invitation as a part of the 90-man roster. From there, he’ll have to fight and claw, making the most of every single rep to survive the cut to 75 players, and then to 53. However, most teams really only have a few open roster spots by the time training camp begins.

Kevin Henry started 30 games at Central Michigan and now he begins the uphill battle of making an NFL roster with the Atlanta Falcons.

Kevin Henry started 30 games at Central Michigan and now he begins the uphill battle of making an NFL roster with the Atlanta Falcons.

If Henry can earn a camp invitation, his best bet to stick and to continue to impress and improve would be as a member of a team’s practice squad, where 10 players are put in a holding pattern as developmental players that can practice with a team but not play in games until they’re called to the active roster. The amount of players who make it from where Henry is at today to the active roster or practice squad is minuscule.

However, that’s something that Henry is keenly aware of. He’s confident in his abilities and he’s always had the competitive drive, from the time he arrived in Morris to play a little varsity football as a freshmen to Central Michigan to now.

Yet, if it doesn’t work out, he has a great family and an education. He had a great career and he’s been blessed with an opportunity to pursue a dream he’s had since he was a 5-year-old–he gets to take a shot at the NFL.

That’s something worth celebrating, and we sure as hell did.

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